We have a chest full of stench!
November 5, 2009 2:44 AM   Subscribe

We've inherited a wooden sea chest from 1827 along with accompanying provenance and documentation. That's the good news. The bad news is that it stinks.

This beautiful antique chest was filled with old navy uniforms for at least 100 years, but also with moth balls.

When we open it, the smell of the moth balls is overpowering, to say the least. We've tried leaving it open outdoors for several days, putting trays of baking soda in it and closing it, and doing the same with vanilla extract.

Nothing works, although we have seen soem slight improvement.

Should we resign ourselves to never again being able to store anything in it?
posted by imjustsaying to Home & Garden (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Activated charcoal? (Just a guess)
posted by elephantday at 3:07 AM on November 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Smelleze appear to have a specific product. Never tried it though.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 3:16 AM on November 5, 2009

Possibly use dryer softener sheets for a few days? I just did this with a purse I inherited from a heavy smoker. I put several sheets in all areas of the purse for a few days, then put the purse outside for a few days, and then sprayed the inside with Febreeze and let it dry. The smell is completely gone now, but now that I think about it, the Febreeze is what did the trick.
posted by raisingsand at 3:23 AM on November 5, 2009

Seconding activated charcoal.
posted by devnull at 3:50 AM on November 5, 2009

I like the idea of activated charcoal.

When you left it outside, was it warm? I ask because napthalene is going to sublime better in a warmer setting. The faster it sublimes, the faster the smell goes away.
posted by Netzapper at 4:11 AM on November 5, 2009

Fresh ground coffee. Close the lid.
posted by filmgeek at 5:14 AM on November 5, 2009

I pulled a pair of waders from a basement trunk a few weeks ago. The had been in there for years, and were strongly mildewed. The trunk absolutely stunk. It's been sitting with a plate of ordinary lump charcoal in it for about 2 weeks, and the mildew stink is down considerably. I didn't think it would work, but it did.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 5:28 AM on November 5, 2009

Not to derail, but rather to put you back on the right track. You can, and should store woolen items in there, with mothballs, or go to the home center and buy thin strips of tongue and groove aromatic cedar to line the whole chest with.
posted by Gungho at 5:38 AM on November 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Activated charcoal for the win!

If you do decide to place cedar inside of the chest, place the strips in the bottom WITHOUT ATTACHING THEM. Nailing or gluing anything to that chest will compromise its worth, FYI.

What kind of naval uniforms, btw?
posted by jeanmari at 5:53 AM on November 5, 2009

Nothing you put in there to absorb the smell is going to do much, at least for a few long time. Activated charcoal should potentially take *years*, as it took years for the smell to work it's way into the wood. Vanilla extract, at best, is only covering the smell, and will stop working when the vanilla goes away.

Have you tried something to go into the wood, like Murphy's Oil Soap? My first thought was to steam the wood, but that's an antique, and the hide glue probably won't hold up well to that.
posted by talldean at 5:56 AM on November 5, 2009

Gungho, I hate to say this, but you are totally wrong.

Mothballs are actually a really horrible way to protect wool.

Your BEST method of both protecting and preserving these uniforms is to do the following: place the uniforms in a sleeve of ACID FREE tissue (preferably with the tissue between folds of the uniforms, stuffing the sleeves and pants legs, ), then wrap the entire package in another layer of acid free tissue. Place this within a large, acid free plastic bag (not regular storage baggies), with a strong seal. Deflate as much as possible, and seal.

The tissue will help protect and preserve the wool from any further damage, while the air tight plastic bags will smother any larva, fungi, or what not, living in the wool. The combination will help preserve the uniforms until you can decide what to do with them.

As to the smell. The best odor neutralizer I know of is vinegar. A 10% solution of white vinegar and water does wonders. HOWEVER, be careful if you apply this to the wool as not to damage the dyes or fabric. It should work just fine on the trunk, however.
posted by strixus at 6:01 AM on November 5, 2009

Guys, I don't think he has the actual uniforms.
posted by molybdenumblue at 6:07 AM on November 5, 2009

What a lovely problem to have; an old chest with a stink. Sunlight and charcoal are the most effective, but not the most romantic. There are all kinds of aromatics out there, maybe you could use some after the charcoal? Bay leaves, rosemary, catmint, lavender, orange peel, and cinnamon spring to mind. The 19th century housewife would have probably used an orange stuck with cloves.

Lucky you!
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:18 AM on November 5, 2009

Slightly offtopic: This item is potentially valuable to collectors, and therefore I would suggest that you be careful that nothing you do will alter the appearance in any significant way. Do not use random chemicals.

Instead, I would suggest that you contact a local university art department, museum, or special-collections library and speak with someone who specializes in conservation of historic artifacts.
posted by aramaic at 6:33 AM on November 5, 2009 [6 favorites]

Supplement the above regimens by first turning it on its side and directing warm air from a heater, not too hot, into it for 24 hours.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:56 AM on November 5, 2009

Kitty litter. It's what book preservationists use to get the stink out of old books.
posted by MsMolly at 8:38 AM on November 5, 2009

Mothballs are made of concentrated toxic chemicals. Old chest may have had the old naphthalene mothballs. Breathing the fumes is not good for you. If you have access to an attic, I'd prop open the trunk, point a fan into it at low speed, and leave it for a week or a month. Then close it up with activated charcoal.

Kitty litter works well on books because it absorbs moisture. I expect activated charcoal would absorb mothball chemicals.

Once it's relatively free of mothball stink, cedar oil deters moths and masks smells, and is unlikely to affect the value of the chest.
posted by theora55 at 8:51 AM on November 5, 2009

MsMolly has it, Kitty litter. Plus plenty of outdoors time, and wipe down from time to time with an alcohol wipe, as long as you ascertain it won't harm the finish of the chest. It'll take time.
posted by fire&wings at 9:45 AM on November 5, 2009

Old mothballs should be naphthalene, the fumes from mothballs will be heavier than air. Turn the chest up side down and prop up the base so the fumes can leave the chest. Do this somewhere away from people, in the garage, in the basement. Warmth or a fan may speed the process.
posted by bdc34 at 11:25 AM on November 5, 2009

Put as large a bag of charcoal as will fit in the trunk. Be sure to get plain old charcoal briquettes, and not the quick start stuff. Leave it in the paper bag it comes in. I had mildew odor in my car, and have driven around with a bag of charcoal in my car for a month and it has improved it drastically. My sister turned me on to this technique when she had seafood liquid that overflowed its container and wound up under the refrigerator. She spread the briquettes in the overflow tray under the frig and violla, no more stench. I would try 1 week with charcoal, 1 week open trunk to fresh air, alternating as needed. Depending on degree of odor, it may be neccessary to change out the charcoal.
posted by yankee named dixie at 11:28 AM on November 5, 2009

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